Soon after he beat court-martial charges this summer in the worst friendly-fire accident in recent history, Air Force Capt. Jim Wang was called into his general’s office on the sprawling air base here.
The general shook his hand, congratulated him on his acquittal and told him that the Air Force would now do everything it could to help him put his career back together.
This week he was summoned back to the general’s office. He was told his career is over.
In his first interview since the Pentagon announced that Wang and six other career officers were being severely disciplined, Wang said Wednesday that he finds himself “hung out to dry all over again.”
He feels “betrayed and lied to.”
He is the victim, he said, of “double jeopardy.”
An eight-year veteran of the Air Force, a graduate of the prestigious Air Force Academy, a lead supervisor aboard an Air Force radar plane in the Persian Gulf, Wang was the only person tried by military courts for the mistaken attack last year on two U.S. helicopters in the “no-fly” zone over Iraq. Missiles fired by Air Force jets destroyed both aircraft, killing 15 Americans and 11 foreign officials.
Once seen as a sacrificial lamb, later hailed as a victor for beating the system, Wang stands today back at ground zero, the career he fought so hard to save once again at an end.
He and other airmen involved in the accident have been grounded from flying for three years. An adverse letter of evaluation has been placed in his personnel file. And the Pentagon, in a highly unusual move to publicly clean its own house, announced this week that for Wang and the others, there are no more promotions just over the horizon.
Wang plans to appeal the disciplinary action. He has obtained letters of recommendation from at least two of the families of those killed in the April 14, 1994, tragedy. He nevertheless holds little hope he will prevail.
“I go through phases and there have been days this week where I’m bitter,” he said. “Real bitter. I felt like I finally had my life back on track. I was doing all the things they wanted. I was rosy. I was going places again.
“But now our careers are going to be over anyway. We are dead.”
The news is particularly bittersweet for Wang. At 29 and married with a 2-year-old son, he never imagined life outside the Air Force.
But since that day when the alarming news first crackled over his radar plane’s airwaves that the wrong helicopters had been destroyed, his military life has slowly spun downward.
At first he shunned the public, refusing to comment, trusting that the military’s criminal-justice and administrative systems would bear out his innocence.
Wang insists that he and his radar crew never mistakenly told two F-15 pilots that the Army Black Hawk helicopters were Iraqi Hinds. He said his crew saw the radar blips on the screen and notified the pilots. But before the radar crew could positively identify the aircraft, he contends, the pilots wrongly judged them to be Hinds and shot them down.
Military prosecutors argued at Wang’s court-martial that he failed to alert the pilots in time that the helicopters were American. On June 20, a court-martial jury of senior Air Force officers acquitted him of all charges of dereliction of duty.
Still, he pushed the issue. He hoped to appear at congressional hearings to more closely examine problems within the Air Force that led to the accident. He has spoken at Chinese American functions, describing the thousands of dollars in legal assistance he has received from support groups around the nation. This weekend, he is to appear at two fund-raisers in Los Angeles.
He said he does not believe that his outspokenness against the Air Force and senior Pentagon leaders was responsible for destroying his career. But he now speaks much more aggressively against a military he believes has let him down.
Knowing that he will not make the rank of major, will not fly again, will no longer call the Air Force home, he sees no reason to hold his tongue.
“A lot of people in the military know the facts,” he said. “They know this is B.S. They know that the leadership has gone astray. You can ask anybody on the base right now and the level of respect they have for the commanders is diminished.”
His former supervisor, Maj. Larry Tracey, who sat next to him on that ill-fated radar plane flight and who was never implicated in any wrongdoing, also holds strong resentment over the way Wang was treated. Tracey himself took an early retirement this summer after 15 years of service.
“They had it so rigged against Jimmy,” Tracey said. “It’s scary. Morale is at an all-time low.”
But military leaders deny that the punishment is vindictive. Senior military leaders in Washington said the court-martial looked for criminal negligence, while the administrative review was intended to see whether Air Force procedures had not been followed.
And they pointed out that not just rank-and-file airmen were punished. The two F-15 pilots and two brigadier generals were punished, along with Wang and two other radar controllers.
“Criminal prosecution is not the only measure of accountability,” Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall said in a memorandum to Defense Secretary William J. Perry.
“Air Force standards require far more than mere compliance with the law,” Widnall said. “In this case, administrative actions such as reprimands, admonitions and counselings outnumbered judicial actions.”
She added: “Air Force standards will be uniformly known, consistently applied and non-selectively enforced. We owe no less to the Air Force and to the American people.”
In the adverse letter of evaluation, Air Force Chief of Staff Ronald R. Fogleman wrote of Wang:
“He failed to demonstrate the job knowledge required of his position. . . . He failed to take control of those under his supervision in order to correctly assess a developing situation and failed to properly carry out the duties assigned.
“In doing so, he demonstrated job knowledge, leadership and judgment below Air Force standards.”
The severe penalties come after an intense public outcry, particularly from many of the relatives of the dead. They accused the military of covering up for the tragedy and not doing enough to make sure the incident is not repeated.
But Wang has received letters of support from the parents of two of the victims, Allen C. Hall of Windsor, Calif., and Joan Piper of San Antonio.
“I’m sure these people feel remorse for what they did,” wrote Hall, the father of Army Chief Warrant Officer Michael A. Hall. “And I wish that someday I could meet them face to face and tell them that I forgive them for that horrible mistake.”
He added: “Capt. Jim Wang should not receive a harsh punishment.”
In June, after he won the case at court-martial and met with Brig. Gen. Silas Johnson, Wang applied for several new assignments. He asked to attend the Air Force Institute of Technology at Dayton, Ohio. He applied for work as a recruiting officer and with the Air Force security police.
But on Monday, when he was called back to Johnson’s office and told he was being disciplined anew, he realized those dreams are hopeless. “I felt like I escaped one bullet only to be hit by another.”
Then on Wednesday he learned about a request of his to attend squadron officer school later this month in Alabama.
“I just got told minutes ago that I wouldn’t be going to that either,” he said.